SÃO PAULO, Brazil — Once a week, the boys from the Palmeiras youth academy climb aboard a bus and prepare for their regular visit to the past. These are the fledgling stars of Brazilian soccer: the best and brightest prospects from the most prolific youth system in the world’s greatest hothouse of talent.
From their pristine campus in Guarulhos, on the outer edges of São Paulo’s suburban sprawl, the boys slowly make their way through the grinding traffic and head into the tight, winding streets of Heliópolis, the biggest favela in Brazil, or one of the dozens of other informal communities that house millions of the city’s poorest inhabitants.
Arriving at their destination, they are dropped off at what passes for a field. Sometimes, it might be little more than a patch of scrubland, a treacherous blend of sand and dirt pockmarked with ridges to turn ankles and holes to rattle knees. On occasion, the field might be flooded, the water rendering the ball slow, unwilling. On others, it is bone dry, making controlling even the simplest pass an exacting test of skill.
No matter what it looks like, the boys are told to play.
Their coaches provide no instruction. The players are left to pick their own teams, to establish their own tactics. The rules are only loosely enforced. “I don’t mind if they receive a blow from time to time,” said João Paulo Sampaio, the director of the Palmeiras academy. As if to illustrate, he rises to his feet and mimics striking someone with his elbow.
Every day, one age group at the Palmeiras academy goes through this ritual, an occasion for “street soccer, joy, improvisation,” Sampaio said. It is also a day to remind the boys of how things used to be, of how countless generations of Brazilian stars not only honed their skills but toughened their sinews.
Their visits are far more than an indulgence of nostalgia. In the countries where players come from — like Brazil, like the rest of South America, like in Africa, like in Asia — the shadow of Europe hangs heavy.
Every aspect of soccer’s global culture is now set by the needs of the market in the major leagues of England, Germany, Spain, Italy and France. That guiding hand decides what sort of players are given a chance to enter into academies and set on the path to stardom. It determines what they are trained to do once they arrive. It defines how they are taught to play.
The natural conclusion of that dominance will be on display in Qatar. The demands and desires of Europe have shaped not only the way almost every country will play at this World Cup, but also which teams have had the talent and resources to qualify for it and which team has the ability to win it.
That is true even in Brazil, a country that boasts more World Cup titles than any other. At the Palmeiras academy, the next generation of Brazilian players are taught on immaculate fields how to play in a minimum of three positions, in a style that might make them appealing to a club in England, Spain or Germany.
The prospects are entered into a host of international tournaments, where they are exposed to the sorts of ideas and systems en vogue in England or Spain. They are offered free English lessons by a club sponsor. “We are preparing them to be ready for the world,” Sampaio said. “Not just Brazil.”
Hundreds of Roger Millas
The cramped offices of Nairobi’s Express Soccer Academy are sandwiched between a garage and a timber workshop in the middle of a dusty industrial park. The fields where the academy’s 20 teams train are a couple miles away; Maurice Mbowo, the school’s founder, rents them to an international school to help pay the bills.
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Mbowo established his academy a decade ago, an attempt to provide a pathway for Kenya’s budding soccer stars to build their careers. Progress has been slow. He has been able to attract foreign investment only over the past few months. This year, a German soccer foundation helped him organize a youth tournament. A friend is trying to get Hannover 96, a second-division team, to take an interest.
Kenya, with its population of 55 million people, has never played in the World Cup. Since 1992, it has qualified only twice for the African Cup of Nations, and it has never made it beyond the group stage. It is not alone. No East African country has ever qualified for the World Cup finals. Central Africa has mustered only one: Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo) in 1974.
Mbowo lays the blame for that squarely on governmental failure, pointing out that Kenya — like all its neighbors — receives “millions” of dollars from FIFA, the game’s governing body, but has little or no infrastructure to show for it. “Where is the money going?” he said.
Just as significant, though, is the way that history of poor governance, insufficient funding and corruption has discouraged European investment in East Africa.
“If you see Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda, all these East African countries who perform poorly, people will ask why they should invest there,” said Christian Ungruhe, an anthropologist who has studied soccer dynamics in East and West Africa. A club weighing entry, he said, would see “there’s no government structure, no emphasis on football at the school level.” Instead, he said, it would “have to build everything from scratch.”
The contrast on the other side of the continent is stark. Senegal, the current champion of Africa, is home to a growing number of academies, many of them backed by investment from top-tier French teams like Lyon and Marseille. The Dutch team Utrecht has an outpost in Ghana. Brasseries, one of Cameroon’s most productive academies, was established with the help of Castel, the French brewing giant.
“We follow the European model,” said Saer Seck, one of the founders of Diambars, a Senegalese academy that discovered several members of Senegal’s squad for Qatar. “Discipline, impact, endurance. But we try to encourage creativity: If a player wants to dribble, who am I to tell him that it’s not the best strategy? He’s on the field, I’m not.”
The Diambars facilities, like its thinking, are European. Its players, who arrive as young as age 12, have access to GPS tracking tools, video analysis sessions and even cryotherapy chambers, Seck said. They train on six manicured fields, all wearing the same equipment, thanks to a sponsorship arrangement with Nike.
Everything is refined enough for Diambars to rent its facilities to national teams and host the N.B.A. Academy Africa. “It’s part of our business model, and it provides a lifeline to people in the area,” said Seck, a businessman in the fishing industry who founded Diambars in 2003 with a partner and now manages it on a voluntary basis.
Diambars runs its own professional team in Senegal’s top division, but most of the boys who spend their high school years there harbor dreams of going abroad. “Scouting in Africa is expensive for European clubs because of travel costs, so youth academies in West Africa do the job for them,” said Mansour Loum, editor in chief of the sports website Sport News Africa.
Consequently, Senegal, like Cameroon and Ghana, has become an established pipeline of talent for Europe. Diambars and the other academies here are not just the first port of call in Africa. They are often the only one. “It’s a virtuous or vicious circle, depending on where you are,” said Raoul Savoy, the Swiss-born coach of Central African Republic.
And it is one ultimately started by Europe. Countries like Cameroon, Nigeria and Senegal rose to prominence when they first qualified for the World Cup in the 1990s and early 2000s, Savoy said. “All of a sudden, Europe sent some scouts and realized there were hundreds of Roger Millas,” he said, referring to the Cameroon legend.
More formal links and more investment in West Africa and in North Africa soon followed, entrenching those countries’ advantages, turning them into the continent’s soccer powerhouse. (All five of the teams Africa will send to Qatar — Senegal, Cameroon, Ghana, Tunisia and Morocco — come from the west and north.)
At the same time, those choices locked out a whole region of the continent, seemingly for good. It is not that there is less talent in Kenya and the Central African Republic than in Tunisia or Senegal; it is that there is less investment, less opportunity. Which nations can hope to reach the World Cup is determined, in effect, by Europe. And so, too, is the question of which countries can win it.
Outside the train station in the French port city of Le Havre, hundreds of fans are waiting to be ferried to the Stade Océane. It is an exotic blend: locals swaddled in thick coats under the spitting rain and mixed with German families and English students. They are all surrounded by dozens of Brazilians. Many of them wear jerseys expressing their love for a hometown team but the mood is cordial, relaxed. Tribal loyalties are set aside under the national flag.
Brazil might not have won a World Cup in two decades, but few nations can match its box-office appeal. Its regular exhibition games are marketed as the Brazil Global Tour, matches that attract capacity crowds not only in sleepy French ports like Le Havre but also as far away as Singapore and Saudi Arabia, Prague and Porto. Its famed yellow jersey, the canarinha, remains soccer’s most iconic look. Brazil is still Brazil.
Whether its team is Brazilian, though, is a different matter.
“The Brazilian national team is not a team that comes from Brazil to play in the World Cup,” said Thiago Freitas, the chief analyst for the player agency TFM, which counts the likes of Vinícius Junior, Gabriel Martinelli and Brazil’s latest rising star, 16-year-old Endrick, among its clients. “We haven’t had a team that comes from Brazil since 1986.”
That year, only two players in Brazil’s squad for the World Cup played outside the country’s borders, a proportion that has since been steadily increasing. Through the 1990s, roughly half of Brazil’s players were drawn from abroad.
In 2002, the year Brazil won its fifth World Cup, 13 members of its squad were still involved in Brazilian domestic soccer, though it is worth noting that the majority of the team that played in the final came from European clubs.
Since then, the squad’s composition has been almost completely inverted: In 2006, 2010 and 2018, Brazil selected only three players based in its domestic league. This year, even after rosters were expanded to 26 players, that total is unchanged.
The changing composition reflects Europe’s influence and its gravitational pull. Brazil’s national team has been effectively disconnected from Brazilian soccer, said César Sampaio, a former international who is now the national team’s chief scout.
Sampaio said when he played, a year or two in a strong domestic team was a vital step in a player’s development. “Now, the players leave when they are between 18 and 21, or earlier,” he added. “They finish their development in Europe.”
Europe makes its presence felt long before that. “The most important things in player development when I was young, 30 or 40 years ago, were the street, the beach and futebol de salão,” César Sampaio said, a reference to the fast-paced indoor version of soccer known at futsal. “It was natural, intuitive, essential. Today, it’s a different reality.”
Much of the physical framework of that reality has been imported wholesale from Europe as Brazil has adopted the infrastructure to industrialize its youth development: hundreds of young players, many of them not yet in their teens, drilled by specialist coaches on artificial turf at sleek, modern training centers.
César Sampaio recalled spending the early days of his career facing off against “big players, older guys, fat guys.” Today, he said, “it is more controlled: players of the same age and the same standard against each other. There is a European influence there.”
There is also a payoff. Brazil has long been a net exporter of players: Five years ago, one study estimated that more than 1,200 Brazilians were playing abroad, with a vast majority employed by clubs in Europe. That represents a crucial stream of potential revenue for Brazil’s clubs. To ensure its steady flow, the country’s teams seek to tailor the types of players they produce to meet the demands of the European market.
“If you go to Brazilian clubs and look at 12-, 13- or 14-year-old goalkeepers, you will see specific training so that they can play with their feet,” Freitas said. “That is because the clubs are looking for a goalkeeper that can, in future, go to a European club.”
It is the same, he said, with fullbacks — “they are looking for players who can compete in the air or play as central defenders,” rather than a swashbuckling, raiding heir to Cafu or Dani Alves — and with central midfielders. “In Brazil, we say clubs are looking for a todocampista,” Freitas said. “Someone who can play in many functions.”
That search has increasingly been bleeding into the national team. “The style today, we have a little bit of everything,” César Sampaio said. “We imported the way to defend, specifically from Europe. Each of our games is different to the others. It’s pragmatic. What you do against one opponent won’t serve you for the next. It is the first time I have seen this. For Brazilians, it’s difficult.”
But it is necessary. To be successful, even the world’s greatest soccer culture has to bow to Europe. If Brazil wants to win a sixth World Cup in Qatar, it will have to do so by beating the Europeans at their own game. The raw material is still Brazilian, of course. The refinement, though, is performed across the Atlantic.
Perhaps the best illustration of the shift Brazil has experienced is in César Sampaio’s job description. As the national team’s chief international scout and as a trusted right hand of Tite, the coach, he is tasked with keeping tabs on not only the form of those players in the squad, but also on those hoping to displace them.
He now spends much of his time in Europe. It makes sense: That is where the players are, where they have always been destined to go, where the ideas that shaped every step of their journey has originated. He can still see the difference, though. He still believes in ginga (pronounced jee-en-gah), a term borrowed from capoeira that has come to encapsulate the melodic, inventive streak shot through Brazilian soccer.
“This ginga, this style of dribbling and feinting can still be found in Brazilian players,” he said. It still makes Brazilians different — to his eyes, at least — from all of the other players they encounter in the Premier League, La Liga and Bundesliga every few days.
The two examples he cites, the Real Madrid pair of Vinícius Junior and Rodrygo, are both part of the first generation of players to receive a fully European education in Brazil. Both came through modernized academies. Neither cut their teeth on the streets. Vinícius spent just a single season at Flamengo. Rodrygo had two at Santos. Both left Brazil at 18. Both, he said, have ginga nonetheless.
“It can’t be taught,” César Sampaio said. “If you learn it, it won’t be natural. They’re both able to find solutions through this.”
That is what those sessions on the dirt fields of the favelas are designed to nurture, to protect. Everything about the education young players receive at Palmeiras — as with so many other teams in Brazil and around the planet — is determined by Europe, the consequence of soccer’s relentless globalization.
It is only when they make that journey through those winding streets, toward what passes for a field, back into the past that they have the fleeting chance to do something that binds the next generation of stars to those who went before them, to learn something that is uniquely, irrevocably Brazilian.